MELBOURNE, Australia – Roger Federer admitted to nerves before he headed out to play Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open quarterfinals Wednesday night, despite his extremely favourable head-to-head against him.
The defending champion has seen what has happened to nearly all the top seeds in this event over the last 10 days. And the notion that it could also happen to him wasn’t far from his thoughts.
That might be why the 36-year-old Swiss quickly went down 0-3 in the first set. But he recovered quickly and went on to a 7-6 (1), 6-3, 6-4 victory that puts him into his 43rd career Grand Slam semifinal.
“My nervousness doesn’t depend on the rankings of the other players. The nerves are there suddenly. You can’t explain it to yourself. Before going to sleep I thought a lot about the match against Berdych. I watched all the matches I played last year – why I played well, why it was so tight at Wimbledon, why I almost lost in Miami. I felt like today, a bad thing could happen. That kind of made me more nervous than other matches where you say, if I play well, I’ll find the solutions,” Federer said in French during his post-match press conference.
“Sometimes it comes 10 minutes before the match, this time it was for nearly two days. But sometimes it’s good to be nervous before a match, because it tells you you’re alive.”
No. 2, No. 6 – and two upstarts
There are only four players left in the men’s singles draw. There’s Federer, the defending champion in quest of his 20th major. There is Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund, in his first. There is No. 6 seed Marin Cilic, Federer’s opponent in the Wimbledon final last year and a former US Open champion.
And there is 21-year-old Hyeon Chung, an opponent Federer said he has rarely seen play and doesn’t even know. Unlike the vast majority of his opponents, he still has no idea how he’ll play him.
“I thought he played an incredible match against Novak. … To beat him here is one of the tough things to do in our sport, I believe. I know that Novak maybe wasn’t at 110 per cent, but he was all right. He was giving it a fight till the very end. To close it out, that was mighty impressive,” Federer said.
“I don’t quite know exactly who else he beat throughout the tournament. But to bounce back from a Novak match and just somehow get it done today, this afternoon, that’s tough. That shows that he’s had good composure, a great mindset. Also physically he must have recovered because Novak is going to give you a bit of a workout.”
Berdych has been here before. And he – just a little bit – bemoaned the draw that had him playing one of his nemeses rather than, say, an untested opponent like Chung, Tennys Sandgren or Edmund.
“I mean, if you look at the players and how it is, I mean, of course, young guys. It’s a bit different story than playing Roger in quarters,” he said.
All lining up for the Fed
For Federer, it’s a a dream draw.
The prevailing wisdom about why it has been so hard to break through for the next generation of players has always been this: to win a Grand Slam, you more than likely had to get through at least two, possibly three of the cabal at the top of the game that includes Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
For Federer to win his 20th major, he needs to do none of that.
The factor of the unfamiliar
But an unknown opponent can be a dangerous opponent. An unknown opponent who has little to lose is especially one to be wary of. Federer joked in his on-court interview with Jim Courier after the match that he was going to try to convince himself that he, too, had nothing to lose.
“Right now I couldn’t tell you how I need to play him. One thing I know is I’m going to be playing aggressive. I don’t know how I’m going to do that exactly yet. I don’t know exactly how he returns and how he serves exactly. Those are two major aspects to the game. Those start the points,” Federer said of Chung. “I have to figure that part out a little bit tonight or tomorrow.”
Cilic and Edmund get the “first” semifinal on Thursday, which means that the winner will have an extra day of rest over the winner of Federer vs. Chung, a match that will be played Friday night. The men’s singles final is Sunday.
Young guns? Bring ’em on
Federer has always appeared to take particular pride in sending the young, up-and-coming challengers packing with a defeat, and a memory – maybe even a selfie.
When you’ve played as long as he has, you look for new challenges wherever you can find them. And Federr goes out of his way to invite many of them to practice with him at tournament, and do training blocks with him at his base in Dubai.
Still, Chung has come along so quickly, he remains a mystery.
“I find it disappointing when their breakthroughs come at 27, because then we know them for seven years, let’s say. So I like it when we don’t know the guys. I hardly know Chung. I’ve hardly spoken to him. And I had one Nike appearance once with Edmund over in London. That’s about it. Maybe otherwise I’ve shaken his hand twice and spoken a few words to him. In a way I like it, because it’s really something totally new to me and to some extent for you guys, too,” he said.
Korean players toiling in obscurity
For Chung, who defeated Sandgren 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in an afternoon match that had its share of entertaining moments, it’s a big occasion for not only himself, but for his country and the game in his country.
While there are a lot of Koreans playing professionally, the vast majority tend to remain in Asia, playing Challengers and ITF events there.
There are 16 Korean women with WTA Tour rankings. Only one, Su Jeong Jang, is ranked in the top 150. She reached the final round of qualifying at both the French and US Opens in 2017. But other than a couple of events before each Grand Slam, she never left Asia.
On the men’s side. there are 33 players with ATP Tour rankings. Beyond Chung, there are two younger players in the top 200, including 19-year-old Duckhee Lee. Lee has gotten some press, because he is profoundly deaf and an astonishing tennis player despite that major challenge.
“I think all the people is watching Australian Open now because we make history in Korea, so…” Chung said after his victory.
Not so surprisingly, the 21-year-old’s tennis memories come not from watching Wimbledon on television when he was a kid. They come from the Australian Open, which bills itself as the “Slam of Asia-Pacific” and is played in the time zone closest to his own.
His earliest memories of his role model, Djokovic, come from the Serb’s first career Grand Slam title here in 2008.
He might well procure his number and give him a call. Djokovic, to whom Chung’s game style has often been compared this year, has beaten Federer 23 times.